Farage: From rabble-rouser to Brexit linchpin

Joe JACKSON
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage has enjoyed a long career at the European Parliament (AFP Photo/Ben STANSALL)

London (AFP) - During nearly three decades in public life, Nigel Farage has risen from a eurosceptic rabble-rouser on the fringes of British politics to a pivotal player reshaping the country's Brexit-dominated landscape.

Farage was a driving force behind the 2016 vote to quit the EU and the 55-year-old has now helped see off two prime ministers after scoring his third political victory in five years in the European Parliament polls held in Britain on Thursday.

The victory appears set to bring Farage back to the European legislature -- an institution he wants to see disbanded but where he has nonetheless enjoyed a long career.

"Do you really want me back in this place?" he goaded fellow MEPs in a speech in March, urging them to force the British government to leave the EU without a deal.

In the past, his success in Brussels has not been mirrored at home.

Farage has been a serial failure at getting elected to the British parliament but his latest victory could change all that and he is now threatening to smash the two main parties' historic hold on power.

- 'Sense of the showman' -

The divorced father-of-four and vocal supporter of US President Donald Trump is on paper an unlikely populist, appearing to embody much of what he rails against.

A privately-educated former commodities trader, Farage has served as an MEP in Brussels for 20 years. Yet he regularly lambasts "career politicians" and "the global elite".

Cheered by his supporters as a straight-talking, pint-swilling "everyman", detractors accuse him of being a hypocrite who plays to racists and far-right ideologues.

But love or loathe him, Farage has increasingly mainstream appeal in bitterly divided modern Britain.

"There's a massive sense of the showman," actor Paul Ryan, who portrayed him in a recent TV dramatisation of the 2016 Brexit vote, told AFP.

"He's got a great sense of humour, he's charismatic and he is a great communicator.

"I think that's what makes him as potent as he is."

- 'Bigger risk-taker' -

Farage was born in 1964 to an affluent family in Kent, southeast England. His father was a stockbroker and an alcoholic and his parents divorced when he was five.

He was educated at one of England's top private schools, Dulwich College, before working in the financial world.

A larger-than-life figure, Farage has had several brushes with death that have proved defining.

In 1985 he had a cancerous testicle removed, and was hit by a car after a night out, suffering serious head and leg injuries.

Once recovered, he married his nurse, and the couple had two sons.

Following their divorce in 1997, Farage married second wife Kirsten Mehr, a German, with whom he has two daughters. They separated in 2017.

His most recent scare came on general election day in May 2010 when a light aircraft crashed after a campaign banner got caught in a propeller.

He escaped relatively unscathed with just broken bones and a punctured lung.

- Enduring criticism -

Farage's political ascent began in 1993 when Britain, under the ruling Conservatives, joined in a process of deeper European integration.

He quit the Tories in disgust to co-found the UK Independence Party (UKIP), and six years later won election to the European Parliament aged 35.

Farage has had two stints at the helm of the party, while also making seven failed bids to become a British MP over the years.

Castigating the EU and "out of control" immigration, UKIP slowly rose in popularity and in 2014 pulled off an unprecedented win in the European parliament elections.

That heaped pressure on then prime minister David Cameron to call a referendum on EU membership that would eventually seal his demise.

Farage was kept out of the official Leave campaign, which feared his brand was too divisive.

But he maintained a high profile, hammering away at the immigration issue -- and sparking enduring criticism by unveiling a poster of refugees under the slogan "breaking point".

- 'Unpleasantness is constant' -

In the afterglow of victory, Farage stepped down as UKIP leader claiming his mission was complete.

In interviews, he said the period had taken a heavy toll on him and his family.

"My life is not easy," he told the Daily Mail. "The level of aggression and unpleasantness is constant."

Last week it emerged businessman Arron Banks, the biggest bankroller in the 2016 referendum, had since spent around £450,000 ($570,000, 510,000 euros) funding Farage's lifestyle, prompting the European Parliament to announce an investigation.

Farage founded the Brexit Party earlier this year, decrying the political paralysis that has prevented Britain leaving the EU.

He said his aims were now far more ambitious than winning European elections, vowing that they were merely the first shots of "a revolution in British politics to end the two-party structure".

His mission has already claimed the scalp of prime minister Theresa May, who announced her resignation on Friday with her party resigned to Sunday's electoral wipeout.